Talking with Television: Women, Talk Shows, and Modern Self-Reflexivity.  By Helen Wood.

Urbana: University of Illinois Press, April 2009.  Cloth: ISBN 978-0252033919, $65; paper: ISBN 9780252076022, $25.  256 pages.

Review by Yuya Kiuchi, Michigan State University

In Talking with Television: Woman, Talk Shows, and Modern Self-Reflexivity, Helen Wood examines women’s social interactions via and with television. She explains that the book explores how women talk about television, talk on television, and talk with television. What exists at the base of this approach is looking at television and its technology as interactive media through which a new social environment is formed and lived, rather than just as a mere information transmission machine. Just as Janice Radway successfully argued in her seminal work, Reading the Romance in 1991, Wood unearthed how women explored their feminine identities and put them into practice through their participation in television viewing. As Radway investigated the ritual of romance novel reading by a small number of midwestern females in the mid-1980s, Wood interrogated the meaning of a similar ritual around talk show viewing.
Wood focused on British daytime television shows. The programs she studied include This Morning, Good Morning, Kilroy, and The Time … The Place. These shows are not unique to Britain. Wood explains that not only do similar shows exist in the U.S., but topics discussed in them are very prototypical for any talk shows targeting women.  Health, romantic relationships, family problems, and other topics are common themes. Especially because these issues are omnipresent in any household and viewers are ordinary British females staying at home or observing the show in a studio, Wood explains that the programs underscore conservative gender norms of females’ roles in society and family.
While Wood’s analysis of television programming is extremely effective, it is also noteworthy that her study has a strong theoretical foundation. The opening two chapters are dedicated to theoretical discussions that become fundamental later in the book. The issue of spectacle and participation, television as a medium to create a feminist public sphere, and other ideas serve as the foundations of her research. Although it is somewhat regrettable that this section reads like a typical literature review from a doctoral dissertation, it is a useful resource for any researchers conducting textual and discourse analyses of media and its implications for female identities.
Wood’s “texts-in-action” approach is unique. Although she takes advantage of more conventional methodologies in her work, this new strategy allows her to simultaneously examine broadcaster’s and audience’s speech. She juxtaposes transcripts of both speeches to demonstrate how exactly viewers engaged themselves with a talk show program.  By doing so, Talking with Television shows the way in which female audiences reaffirm and subscribe to many conventional feminine social roles as they are watching a show.  While many previous scholarly works studied audience reactions as a set of feedback given at the end of a program (i.e. how the audience reacted to the show as a whole), Wood analyzes a series of feedback given at home throughout the show.
Talk show examples suggest that television programs and audience play separate roles in enabling the self-reflexivity of women. On the one hand, talk shows intentionally use inclusive language to encourage their viewers to feel that they are a part of the program. The use of the word “we,” for example, is a strategic means for producers to urge audience participation both physically and psychologically.  Similarly, talk shows frequently talk to the audience on the other side of the television with the pronoun “you.”  This method establishes a direct and individualized relationship between the talk show host and numerous viewers. On the other hand, viewers willingly interact with programs.  Wood explains that interestingly, the way they respond to talk shows and their hosts is very similar to how daily conversations take place. Responses are short to indicate that they are listening and are not trying to interrupt. They even verbally answer questions. Wood’s analysis reveals that these interactions enable feminine public spheres to exist.
In addition to the texts-in-action methodology, Wood also advances the study of women and media by breaking down the static binary between text and audience.  By articulating the dynamic and constantly fluctuating relationship between talk shows and their viewers, the author sheds light on the gender, and often class, negotiations that take place in a living room. The implication of this study is immense for this reason.  This approach will disclose the flexible relationship between television and not only working class females in Britain but also males, African Americans, and audience members of other backgrounds.  As Wood demonstrated, would such a study reveal a talk show’s emphasis on conservative social norms?  Or is this finding unique to talk shows targeting women? Additionally, since the book is based on research conducted almost fifteen years prior to its publication, it makes its readers wonder if the same conclusion would hold even today. The new methodology and its potential undoubtedly add further value to this book for course adaptation in an interdisciplinary program.

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